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The world of work is broken and it's Microsoft's fault

Employees are wasting literal days on meetings and email – but in rides AI like a knight in shining armor, right?

As an eminent producer of "workplace productivity" tools, Microsoft is well placed to understand how they are used thanks to its data-harvesting proclivities.

However, the software giant's annual Work Trend Index report for 2023 [PDF] has revealed that "workplace productivity" could be a misnomer – think "massive timesuck" instead.

The report is hopefully subtitled "Will AI Fix Work?" – understandable for a company that has funneled billions into ChatGPT developer OpenAI and seen its stock rocket for its troubles – and the first half does seem to suggest that some workers' professional lives have their priorities all out of whack.

We hope that Microsoft is doing some soul searching here as the study leads with the statistic that "68 percent of people say they don't have enough uninterrupted focus during the workday."

Now, why could that be? Based on analysis of "intentional actions" within the Microsoft 365 ecosystem – that is, "attending a meeting, writing an email, analyzing data, reviewing or editing a document" – workers were spending 57 percent of their time "communicating" and just 43 percent actually "creating" anything.

Microsoft broke these halves down: Teams Meeting sucked up 23 percent of time, Teams Chat 19 percent, and email 15 percent. On the creation side, Excel was being used just 18 percent of the workday, Word 10 percent, PowerPoint 8 percent, and OneNote 7 percent.

It followed this up with the disturbing finding that "the heaviest email users (top 25 percent) spend 8.8 hours a week on email, and the heaviest meeting users (top 25 percent) spend 7.5 hours a week in meetings."

That's two working days obliterated by what many workers seem to think amount to little more than talking shops. As if to underline the point, a Microsoft survey of workers pegged "having inefficient meetings" as the top "obstacle to productivity." This was followed by "lacking clear goals" and, once again, "having too many meetings."

What we find funny, though, is that Microsoft's assertion that work is broken is also a tacit admission that it's somewhat Microsoft's fault for providing so many communication tools that management really want to use.

So what is to be done? Well, it's 2023. In 2017 it was blockchain. In 2021 it was the metaverse. Now AI is the answer to all civilization's ills. Just ask Palantir, which merely mentioned its upcoming OpenAI-based product in its recent financial results and saw its stock shoot up by 22 percent.

Quite obviously, given where its allegiances currently lie, Microsoft also believes the wundertech is the solution. It said that rather than workers fearing they'd be wholesale replaced by AI, they are eager for it to "lift the weight of work." Author and organizational psychology professor Adam Grant was also wheeled out to say: "It's fascinating that people are more excited about AI rescuing them from burnout than they are worried about it eliminating their jobs."

Indeed, the company's research highlights that workers believe AI will help increase employee productivity, help with necessary but mundane tasks, and improve employee wellbeing, among plenty of other realistic and fanciful attributes.

It smacks of the economist's pipe dream of infinite growth at a time of scarce human capital and stagnant growth, as if AI was able to work like the Duplicator from Calvin & Hobbes. It's early days yet, but so many companies are basically betting the house on this outcome. According to Bloomberg, AI has been mentioned more than 1,000 times this year on on S&P 500 company earnings calls. ®

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